Let’s get this straight from the onset—despite review blurbs festooning the film’s advertising, John Carney’s Once does not “reinvent the rock musical.” It does a lot of things and does them well, but not only does it offer nothing new and innovative for the genre, it clearly trades on many of the staples laid down by Richard Lester back in 1964 with A Hard Day’s Night—even if the film looks more like Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s faux Beatle documentary Let It Be (1970). (The latter of which resembles A Hard Day’s Night on Quaaludes.) This is by no means a criticism of Once, which is a thoroughly likeable, charming and worthwhile work. It’s merely an attempt to put the film into some kind of perspective.
Frankly, no one is more surprised than I am by just how very good Once is. Glowing reviews to one side, nothing about this film’s trailer made me anxious to see it. The trailer does the movie a grave disservice, since it makes Once look dreary and dull, unwisely focusing on the grainy look of many of the scenes, the unsteady camerawork and, worse, the “slice of life” realism. Moreover, the trailer doesn’t even hint at the quality of the music in the film. Truthfully, the film is grainy, the camerawork is shaky, and the characters and dialogue tend toward the unexcitingly realistic. But the cumulative effect of its whole 85-minute running time is very close to amazing.
Carney’s basic concept of the chance meeting of two fairly inarticulate characters—an unnamed Dublin street busker (Glen Hansard) and an unnamed Czech woman (Marketa Irglova)—sounds pretty unpromising. For that matter, we learn very little about them over the course of the film, save that both would like to be professional musicians, both are on the mend from possibly failed relationships and are lonely, and that both are essentially nice people. That’s about it. Neither one says all that much (Hansard has a tendency to respond to just about everything with “Cool”). They’re both somewhat awkward about speaking, and neither is exactly a hotbed of self-esteem. One of the chief pleasantries about the film’s structure is that each comes to hold the other in higher regard than either holds his or her self. There’s a positively magical little moment when someone asks Hansard if his music is any good. Before he can answer, Irglova assures the man that Hansard’s music is “brilliant,” an assessment that shocks Hansard, who blurts out, “It is?”
The pair’s inability to articulate completely disappears once they begin to sing. That’s really the key to Carney’s approach to them—they can communicate through their art that which they can’t otherwise say. You don’t immediately get this until the scene in a music store that allows Irglova to use the store’s pianos. When the two work their way through a song Hansard has written, the depth and poignancy of the characters starts to come into focus. The film is propelled from this point largely by their musical collaboration.
Some scenes are simply outstanding. There’s a wonderful moving shot of Irglova walking down the street and singing the lyrics she’s just written to Hansard’s music as she listens to it on the Discman she’s just bought batteries for. Yeah, it’s grainy as all get-out and the exposure isn’t everything it might be, but it’s at once so real and so effective that it doesn’t matter. (It’s also the one thing in the film that probably does qualify as innovative. Certainly, I can think of nothing I’ve seen before that is anything like it.) Similarly, the entire recording session is very fine—as good as and in some ways better than the one in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (2005). What makes it work—and this despite the fact that it uses several clichéd conventions—is the honesty. Anyone who has ever worked at a creative project for 36 hours straight will immediately recognize the dead tired yet impossibly elated feeling generated by the end of the session.
Another strong point in the film’s favor is its untraditional romance. We know early on that these two aren’t going to end up as romantic partners—not in this film, anyway—and yet the note the film ends on is one of the most gloriously romantic in living memory. And the music … well, I know people who are put off by the fact that the film centers on what is loosely termed a “singer/songwriter” and assume that the songs in the film are therefore easily dismissed as “pap.” Well, there are singer/songwriters and then there are singer/songwriters. These songs are neither too mellow nor too pap, and are definitely worth a listen. Plus, it’s worth remembering while being a music snob, of any kind, that Louis Armstrong—one of the coolest guys who ever lived—was absolutely nuts about the syrupy sounds (“the sweetest music this side of heaven”) of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Sometimes snobbery might be shutting us out of something pretty good.
In the end, while Once doesn’t really reinvent anything, it is a marvelous addition to the short list of genuinely good rock musicals. See it. Rated R for language.